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Law Articles

Controlling or coercive behaviour 18/03/2022

Controlling or coercive behaviour that occurs within an intimate or family relationship is a form of domestic abuse. Women’s Aid defines it as “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”. Men, women and children can be the victim of controlling or coercive behaviour within a relationship. The perpetration of coercive and controlling behaviour is an infringement of the victim’s human rights in that it threatens their liberty and seeks to undermine their personal autonomy.

Although there is no legal definition in family law of coercive and controlling behaviour, the Serious Crime Act 2015 created it as an offence within an intimate or family relationship. This includes intimate partners (whether they live together or otherwise), former partners who still live together, and family members. The Act sets out the criteria for the offence to be met: the behaviour must be repeated and continuous, and the perpetrator knows – or should know – that their behaviour will have a serious impact on the victim. A serious effect is defined by the victim fearing, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them, or the distress caused by the perpetrator’s actions has had a substantial impact on the victim’s day-to-day activities.

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine and is supported by Home Office statutory guidance which provides examples of behaviours that might constitute the offence. These include isolating the victim from their friends and family, depriving them or their basic needs (such as sleep, medical support and food), enforcing degrading and/or humiliating rules or activity, financial abuse, threats to harm or kill, monitoring the victim’s online communications, and assuming control over aspects of the victim’s everyday life. This is not an exhaustive list and perpetrators of controlling or coercive behaviour may well tailor their actions for maximum impact on their victim.

Perpetrators may also use gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation that destabilises the victim by making them doubt their own perception and memory and reinforces the lack of autonomy that victims of controlling or coercive behaviour are likely to experience.

It seems that this form of domestic abuse is rising in England and Wales. Almost double the number of cases of controlling or coercive behaviour were recorded by the Police in the year ending March 2019 than in the previous year. It is illegal to subject a partner or former partner to this type of abuse. Victims may also be able to apply to the Family Court for a non-molestation order or an occupation order for some protection from the perpetrator.

Support is available if you are in a relationship involving controlling or coercive behaviour: 

You can also contact your local Domestic Abuse Unit on the non-emergency Police telephone number 101. This number is for situations that do not require an immediate Police response. Anyone who is in a situation with an immediate threat of harm or danger should call 999.

For further information and advice on this issue, and other family law issues, please contact us for a free initial consultation on 01992 306 616 or 0207 956 2740 or email us.

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